Volume 17 • Issue 14 | August 27 - September 02, 2004

The elephants are coming, but not stampeding Downtown

By Elizabeth O’Brien

While Madison Square Garden will be the center of activity for the Republican National Convention next week, Downtown will also feel the impact of the event as delegations from American Samoa to Nebraska descend on local hotels.

The convention is expected to generate about $265 million in business for the city, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, but some Lower Manhattan hotels are reporting fewer reservations than expected. Theme days such as the Chinatown “End of Summer” Culture Day Festival planned for Sept. 1 will encourage delegates to visit other parts of the city, where organizers hope they will support the neighborhoods by shopping and eating at local restaurants.

But this economic boost will come at a price, as the city absorbs much of the cost of massive security measures and prepares for the anticipated gridlock in Midtown. Along with festive welcoming touches, hotels have prepared security of their own.

“The security of our guests is of the utmost importance,” said Jennifer Oberstein, area director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Battery Park City, which will host the Georgia delegation. Oberstein declined to comment on specific details, saying that to talk about security measures would compromise them.

To make delegates feel at home, Oberstein said there would be elephant plant sculptures in the lobby, along with cocktails such as the Compassionate Conservative, made with passion-fruit. In one of the more exuberant gestures planned by Downtown hotels, the Ritz will project elephant images onto its outdoor sidewalks for each night of the convention, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

The event falls during a typically slow week for New York City hotels. The city’s rooms are most occupied from September through December, with fall foliage, the marathon, and holiday shopping drawing big crowds annually, said Cathy Pascale, director of sales and marketing for the Holiday Inn Downtown, at 138 Lafayette St. in Chinatown.

But the Holiday Inn did not seem poised to benefit from the convention’s pre-Labor day lift.

“We have no groups related to the R.N.C. at all,” Pascale said on Tuesday, adding, “It was not by design.” She noted that the hotel recently lost a homeland security group to a more centrally located Downtown hotel that offered the same rates. Pascale said the Holiday Inn just lowered its rates to try to fill its rooms with last-minute comers.

Some delegates may still make their way to Chinatown as part of the “End of Summer” Cultural Day Festival planned by the New York City Host Committee, the non-partisan group organizing the convention. The Sept. 1 event will showcase dragon and lion dancing, Chinese artisanship and cuisine from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park at Grand and Chrystie Sts.

Spencer Chan, owner of Sweet-n-Tart restaurant on Mott St., said he hoped to bolster his business by offering 20 percent discounts to delegates from Aug. 22 through Sept. 8. Chan estimated that business in Chinatown remains down 15 to 20 percent compared with pre-9/11 levels.

But others were skeptical that delegates would be adventurous enough to sample local cuisine of any kind.

“Who would come out and buy a hot dog when you can go to Governor Pataki’s catered parties?” said Paul Lee, a Chinatown activist. Lee said he was disappointed to see only one “Welcome RNC Delegates” sign during a recent walk through Chinatown.

Jan Larsen, general manager of the Millenium Hilton on Church St., said individual delegations told him that New York City’s perceived high prices were causing some delegates and their guests to stay away. The hotel originally contracted with convention organizers for 500 rooms, but only 200 of them will ultimately be used by the delegations from Rhode Island, Puerto Rico, Utah and Delaware, Larsen said.

The fact that fewer delegates than expected will stay at the Millenium might actually bode well for business at Church & Dey, the hotel’s third-floor restaurant, Larsen said. Delegates would likely stick to planned events for their meals, he said, while the hotel’s regular business travelers frequent the restaurant.

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